Sunday's Café Mulassano : Books, books, books...
Some weeks ago, we made a stop in Padua's Café Pedrocchi. This year on my holiday break, I visited Torino and came across the very old Café Mulassano, the place where the famous Tramezzino sandwich for the first time saw the light. Now wen taking a summer break abroad, I always take some books with me, both fiction and non-fiction. On the non-fiction side, I had the pleasure of reading the following excellent works, at least according to my personal humble opnion:
1) Martha Nussbaum : Creating Capabilities - The Human Development Approach
Martha Nussbaum teaches political philosophy and has been in very close contact with Amartya Sen. Together they developed another approach when measuring the success of developing nations, far away from usual benchmarks such as growth in per capita income. In fact, it tackles the heart of the matter when it comes to human development in the very broad sense of the word : how can we organize the social framework to guarantee justice and at the same time enable people to fully develop themselves, from within. It touches various schools of thought, going from Aristotle - teleology/the final goal - to JS Mill and his views on organizing society in a "liberal" fashion. And it's very well written with clear simple examples from today's reality (eg women in India). It's an ambitious piece of writing and may be a naive approach - utopia - but that gives the book its natural beauty. I bought the book based upon an interview with her which appeared in Knack some weeks ago. I looked up some reviews and these are the most important ones :
Nussbaum's book comes at an interesting time, just as growth in the rich world is slowing. That slowdown makes her ideas relevant for rich people, too. Dignified life in the rich world isn't only about being "well-fed," ...Even amid a slowdown, there are other dimensions in which life can keep improving. -Josh Rothman (Boston Globe).
The key is not to look simply at the hand they've been dealt, but whether their particular society affords them opportunities to win with it. Nussbaum calls this the "capabilities approach," and it offers a novel way to measure prosperity on a national level by seeing how well a country can provide life-changing prospects for all its citizens...By demonstrating the philosophical underpinnings of this approach and how the theory plays out in the real world, Nussbaum makes a compelling case. Not only is this a more realistic measure of wealth, but it is also a far more compassionate one. For readers who enjoy economics laced with humanity. Carol J. Elsen (Library Journal )
Briefly, it's good to know that there are still some people around who care and who value conscience above the the things that can be measured in money.
2) Tony Judt with Timothy Schneider : Thinking the Twentieth Century
This book must have been quite a challenge for the writers and it is a challenge as well for the reader. This is Judt's legacy, a dialogue between him and Schneider, written by the latter because Judt in his last years suffered from ALS and couldn't move nor write any more. As for the reader, the book contains a huge, huge amount of information on European history, the Jewish people, Central Europe (Austria, its influence and its current resurrection). But above all, it's a rare testimony of a talented narrator being "unbiased": Judt criticizes various experiments of thought on both left and right, going from failed socialist experiments in the thirties such as France and fascism as the ultimate socialist experiment gone wrong, to Thatcher and the rise of the Chicago school in the seventies and eighties. Also on the evolution within various Jewish schools of political thought, Judt is not exactly scarce in providing criticism.
It was a tough nut to crack and I probably have to reread the thing all over again because surely I have missed some important details. But like I said, it's full of self criticism and at the same time serving a higher cause : the open debate in search of a new social democracy. And the thing I especially liked was when Judt touched the issues of French existentialism, with Sartre being demolished and Camus being put up front with his famous one-liner : "I only am willing to become a member of a political party provided its members do not pretend to own the truth". From the "Guardian", I picked up the following book review summary :
Today, he says here, all the postwar certainties about employment, health, culture or comfortable retirement have been replaced by a new condition of fear. "It seems to me that the resurgence of fear, and the political consequences it evokes, offer the strongest argument for social democracy that one could possibly make." Judt suggests that the main conflict of the 20th century was not simply about freedom versus totalitarianism, but about the role of the state. After 1945, liberal reformers "forged strong, high-taxing and actively interventionist states which could encompass complex mass societies without resorting to violence or repression". They replaced "the erosion of society by the politics of fear" with "the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes". He's right, surely, that we should remember that century not only for war and Holocaust, but for the most magnificent humane achievement in history. Judt and Snyder ask each other if it would take disaster, even wars, to retrieve that spirit. No, it's for intellectuals "to remake the argument about the nature of the public good". Tony Judt's last words are hot with his typical courage: "This is going to be a long road. But it would be irresponsible to pretend that there is any serious alternative."